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2020’s historic surge in murders, explained

We still don’t know why murders in the US rose so much. Here’s what we do know.

A cross memorial seen against a night sky.
A child takes part in a vigil after the El Paso, Texas, mass shooting on August 3, 2019.
Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images

Looking back at 2020, Americans will remember Covid-19, the collapsing economy, the election, and, perhaps, a big surge in murders.

The official crime data for 2020 won’t come out until later this year, but the data we do have suggests 2020 saw a historic increase in the number of murders nationwide. Based on preliminary FBI data, the US’s murder rate increased by 25 percent or more in 2020. That amounts to more than 20,000 murders in a year for the first time since 1995, up from about 16,000 in 2019, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher. The increase was also found in other data sets from the Council on Criminal Justice and Asher. Across these analyses, aggravated assaults and gun assaults — gun violence — also increased, even as crime overall fell.

The 2020 murder surge “is the largest increase in violence we’ve seen since 1960, when we started collecting formal crime statistics,” John Roman, a criminal justice expert at NORC at the University of Chicago, told me. “We’ve never seen a year-over-year increase even approaching this magnitude.”

The surge is from a relatively low baseline. It comes after decades of drops in murders and crime more broadly in the US, and the total number of murders is still far lower than it was for much of the 1990s and before. But that’s one reason the surge is alarming: It breaks decades of relative peace across the country — one that had continued, with only minor fits and starts, from 1994 to at least 2014.

“We’re still living through a very safe era in US history,” Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton, told me. “When you start from a low base, a percentage increase can be a little bit misleading. … But there was a huge surge in violence — without a doubt.”

We still don’t know why murders surged last year. Experts have some theories: the Covid-19 pandemic’s disruptions to everyday life, a breakdown of police-community relations, an increase in the number of guns purchased. One or all of these factors could have played a role, but there could also be other reasons we don’t know about yet.

That we don’t yet know what caused 2020’s murder surge isn’t surprising. To this day, there’s still a lot of debate and disagreement among experts about what caused the massive decrease that halved overall crime and violent crime rates in America since the 1990s — known as the Great Crime Decline. There are theories based on the research, ranging from changes in policing to less lead exposure to the rise of video games, but there’s not a single set of explanations that the entire field of criminology has embraced.

We also don’t know if 2020’s increases represent a permanent shift in murder or violent crime trends. According to Asher, so far murders were up in the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period last year in a sample of 37 US cities. But that data is too early to draw sweeping conclusions from. And there’s reason to believe, between Covid-19 and last year’s large protests about policing, the trends could be driven by temporary factors.

Regardless of cause, and permanent or not, experts also argue that there are things the US could do right now to reduce murders, from urban renewal initiatives to gun control laws to changes in policing. Even if there hadn’t been an increase in 2020, the proposed solutions could have helped make the US even safer than it was in the past few years.

But the fact that murder did increase in 2020 — and by so much — has made these solutions all the more pressing.

Last year saw the largest murder surge in decades

A 25 percent increase in murders effectively erases decades of progress in combating violent crime, bringing the US back to levels of homicide it hasn’t seen since the 1990s. “Last year was clearly the most violent year of the [21st] century so far,” Sharkey said.

Chart showing based on preliminary FBI data, the US’s murder rate increased by 25 percent or more in 2020. That amounts to more than 20,000 murders in a year for the first time since 1995, up from about 16,000 in 2019.

The data is preliminary, and we won’t get the official, finalized 2020 numbers until later this year, likely in the late summer or early fall.

But multiple data sets suggest this is a real increase.

First, there’s the preliminary FBI data, which is missing data from some local and state governments but is still the most comprehensive data set we have. What it shows is very concerning: Not only were murder rates up overall, but they were up practically everywhere the data tracks so far — big or small cities, metropolitan or nonmetropolitan counties, and Northeast or South or Midwest or West.

Chart showing similar increases of 20-30 percentage points in murders across regions of the US.

A separate report, from the Council on Criminal Justice, found a 30 percent increase in homicide rates in 2020, analyzing data from 34 US cities. Asher’s analysis found murder up 37 percent across 57 localities last year.

The increase in violence includes more mass shootings, defined by the Gun Violence Archive as a shooting in which four or more people were injured, including gang shootings and incidents of domestic violence. Under that metric, mass shootings were up more than 46 percent last year, even as high-profile, public mass shootings that get a lot of media coverage were less common.

The FBI analysis found violent crime was up by 3 percent nationwide, although not as uniformly as murder was. The three data sets all found some kinds of violent crime were up, including aggravated assaults and gun assaults, while others were down, including rape and robbery. Crime overall fell, largely due to drops in nonviolent offenses involving drugs, burglary, or theft (with an exception for car theft).

We don’t have very good data on who, exactly, has been affected most by the surge in murders. But, historically, the burden has fallen most on low-income communities of color. To that end, Sharkey estimated, “Since [2014], the rate of shootings in high-poverty neighborhoods has doubled.”

A big problem here, exemplified by the fact we’re relying on partial and preliminary data for 2020 three months into 2021, is that crime data in the US is generally of poor quality. The full data arrives on a delay — usually six-plus months after the period it’s from — and is based on reports from local and state governments, which can choose not to report any data at all. And because it comes from police agencies, it doesn’t capture any crimes not recorded by the police, likely leaving us unaware of crimes that aren’t always reported (such as theft or rape), though that’s less likely to be true for murder.

Still, it’s safe to say per the data we do have that the murder rate increased last year — a lot.

We don’t know why murders increased so much last year

While experts are certain that last year saw a historic surge in murder, what’s less clear is why. So far, they have offered three possible explanations, all speculative:

1) The Covid-19 pandemic: The coronavirus caused massive disruptions in American life, from the economy to education to entertainment. With all this change in human behavior, there’s a good chance that people changed something in their day-to-day lives that led to more violent crimes, shootings, and murders. Experts don’t necessarily know what that something might be yet.

There are some plausible explanations that fit into the preexisting evidence. For example, isolation and idleness tend to be big concerns for criminologists: When people, especially teenage boys and young men, lack the right social connections and have a lot of free time on their hands, they’re more likely to get into trouble — spending time when they’d be at work or school on gang or other illicit activity, possibly to make ends meet or to socialize. As the pandemic shut down much of day-to-day life, including schools and some sectors of work, those circumstances were more likely in 2020, and may have led to more violence.

Separately, a lot of programs that could help build social cohesion and combat violent crime and murder, including police and other parts of government but also civilian-led initiatives, shut down for at least parts of the year as a result of the pandemic. That, too, could have led to more violence.

2) The protests over policing: After the police killing of George Floyd, America was rocked by months of protests over police brutality. Initial rioting at some protests led to a brief spike in nonresidential burglaries in late May, but that quickly subsided and doesn’t explain the increase in violent crime; instead, experts cite breakdowns in police-community relations.

Those breakdowns could impact violent crime in two ways. Maybe police, afraid of coming under criticism through the next viral video or acting in protest of the demonstrations, pulled back on proactive practices that suppress crime. Or maybe much of the public lost trust in the police, refusing to cooperate with them — making it harder for police to lock up offenders who go on to commit more crimes, and also possibly leading to more “street justice,” as more people distrust the legal system to stop wrongdoers and instead take matters into their own hands. Or a mix of both could have played a role.

3) More guns, more gun violence: In 2020, Americans bought a record number of guns, likely in response to the chaos and fears that engulfed the year. The research is consistent on this point: More guns lead to more gun violence. One study linked the increase in gun purchases through May 2020 to more such violence. With so many guns around, they’re just more likely to be used in violence — their expanded presence makes it more likely that arguments or fights escalate out of control, that thieves can steal firearms to use them in other crimes, or that people can simply purchase more of the weapons with explicitly ill intent.

There’s another possibility: that none of these explanations is correct. After such a weird year, and with such limited data about it, even the smartest, most informed experts are largely flying blind and, by their own admission, speculating a lot. It’s very much possible no one knows what’s going on yet. “We can bet on it being unpredictable,” Jennifer Doleac, director of the Justice Tech Lab, previously told me.

After all, there’s still no consensus about the Great Crime Decline, which has been studied for literally decades. So it’s not too surprising that there are still unresolved questions about a trend that isn’t even a year past.

The surge could subside after Covid-19. Or not.

Given that the past year was so weird in so many ways, it’s entirely possible that the murder surge will subside. Some experts, at least, believe that’s possible.

“I don’t think it represents a longer-term shift,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist and one of the authors of the Council on Criminal Justice report, told me. He noted that the murder rates started to come down, on average, after the summer. “I don’t expect that to reverse.”

Something like this has happened before. Between 2005 and 2006, the homicide rate briefly increased, only to decline to record lows by 2014. In 2015 and 2016, the rates also spiked and then dipped after. In both of these instances, the spikes were seemingly outliers in a decades-long trend.

But other experts aren’t convinced, and argue that betting on an inexplicable trend continuing is a big gamble, especially with lives on the line. There’s also early evidence that the increase in murders has continued into 2021, even as things have gotten a little more normal with the pandemic and economy.

“I’m worried it’s a permanent shift,” Roman said. “I think 2021 is going to be a bad year.” He added, “I’m not terribly optimistic that these numbers are going to go back to the 2014 levels anytime in the near future.”

There is one thing that experts, at least, agree on: There are proven solutions to cut crime and murder rates in the US, and they should be more widely adopted regardless of whether the 2020 murder surge proves to be long- or short-term.

Social programs could go toward decreasing isolation and idleness, particularly among teenage boys and young men most at risk for violence, such as through summer jobs programs or raising the age to drop out of school. Urban renewal initiatives could put more eyes on the street — by greening vacant lots or simply installing more lighting — since would-be shooters are less likely to strike when there are witnesses. There are community programs, like Becoming a Man’s psychosocial intervention for teens. Broader policies could help, such as raising the alcohol tax or limiting alcohol sales at a given time or place.

Gun control measures are backed by the research, too. Universal background checks alone have limited evidence to support them, but there’s fairly strong evidence for a system that requires a license to buy and own a gun, similar to needing a license and registration to drive a car.

Police can also play a role. “Social service providers are not going to go into situations where there’s a gun,” Sharkey said.

Some strategies, like “focused deterrence,” have solid evidence behind them. Broadly speaking, this approach targets very specific parts of the population known to be at risk of gun violence, offering them a carrot — a jobs or education program, for example — or a stick, particularly the threat of arrest. In Oakland, California, this strategy was linked to a 50 percent decrease in homicides from 2012 to 2017.

But implementing this kind of program is going to be difficult in the current social and political environment, in which police have lost a significant amount of credibility with parts of the public, particularly the low-income communities of color affected most by increasing violent crime and murder rates. Police have to find a way to repair that trust and bolster their legitimacy in the eyes of the community — both by holding themselves accountable and by actually changing their ways. Otherwise, their ability to fight crime could remain limited.

Still, if done correctly, police could be part of the solution, and might have to be, given the large number of guns in the US.

A lot of this requires first ending the pandemic. Summer jobs programs, community interventions, and new policing strategies require the kind of in-person contact that is now very risky.

Perhaps the best anti-murder strategy in the short term, then, may be the same as the one to end the pandemic: increasing vaccinations, masking up, and social distancing.

Maybe 2020’s murder surge will subside even if America doesn’t do any of this. But the evidence suggests that, whether or not there is a continued surge, taking action could help drive crime and violence even lower than it was before. Americans were living in a steady era of relative peace before the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do even better.

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